In the last year, much of his beard has lost its color and become shock white against his pale skin. His face is broader, cheeks hang flattened and deeply creased. His hands shake noticeably – a fact he seems to try to showcase, rather than conceal. I watch as he plays it up and then scans the table for a reaction.
I look quickly back at my own plate. I do not want to play this game. With this man I hardly recognize.
When he accuses his children of selling him out – amid rants about the government, his ex wife and the gun he keeps beneath his pillow – he grows stranger and stranger. From his mouth pours paranoia and self-pity and from his eyes, nothing. At times, the color grays out of them, leaving them pale and cloudy, like those of newborns and the dying.
I sit, pressing the tips of my fingernails into the flesh of my palm, trying not to feel the sickness that is ripping through my gut. Who are you… I think, searching for the familiar. And where did my father go?
Had we never met, I wouldn’t have found him alarming. Only unbalanced and odd, a statistic of an earlier war. But now he’s frightening and foreign.
One moment, he is calm and sentimental and the next, irrational and angry. His children – who were a sentence before, his heartbeat – are now cruel traitors in a plot to undermine and hurt him. I do not know whether to be furious or distraught. I do not make up my mind. Instead, I hiccup for the next several hours, my body unable to suppress the upset.
A year has made him a stranger. There are very few remnants of the man I knew in this man with the wiry mane and distant stare. In this profound absence, I feel as though there’s been a death. With so much loss to contend with, each new encounter becomes a small funeral. I find myself wearing sackcloth and ashes, and my emotions so close to the surface I’m sweating grief. And lacking a corpse, I’m forced instead to bury my expectations and my need for the way things were.